Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay
"Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay" is an insane cross country romp that tosses the James Bond or Avengers schtick aside and blends 70s grindhouse action with 80s movies like National Lampoon's Vacation, Cannonball Run, and Smokey and the Bandit. Putting the live action movie to shame, Hell To Pay is the superior Suicide Squad story and this is what we should be seeing on the big screen. Sam Liu jumps from a team of teens and 20-somethings super heroes to the worst of the worst sociopathic supervillains forced to work together in an engaging look at death and morality through the lens of a bloody back stabbing criminal underworld with stunning connections to the ongoing continuity of the DC Universe movies. What could have been a straight forward quest for a priceless artifact was a surprisingly balanced plot with violence and mayhem, thrills and laughs, and even a bit of soul.
Amanda Waller assembles another Task Force X team to go on one of her suicidal black ops missions. The catch is they obey or else Waller blows their heads off with explosive implants. Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, Copperhead, Killer Frost, and Bronze Tiger are sent off in a Winnebago to track down a one-of-a-kind Get Out of Hell Free Card guaranteed to send whomever holds it to Heaven no matter what upon their death. Waller isn't the only one after the card. The team clashes with Zoom, Silver Banshee, and Blockbuster as they track down the person who last saw the card... but then find themselves taking on an immortal heavy hitter in the immortal Vandal Savage and his empire.
In his last script before retirement, or so he thought, writer-producer extraordinaire Alan Burnett has created what is arguably the first true "R rated" animated story and proves it can be done. True, we've had a few R movies before this one but they weren't intended to be R from the start. They skirted it. Yes, there was content in them indicative of R but Hell To Pay, there's no splitting hairs about it. And it's not R just to be R. These are killers who take on other killers. But there are moments, thanks to the road trip format, where they are forced to contemplate their own nature and admit to their concept of the afterlife. It was a nice surprise to see how introspective it got, far past the typical black and white or morally gray territory. These are characters that know what they are, and some are willing to fight for a magic trinket so they don't go to Hell for what they've done. And make no mistake about it. No one is turning over a new leaf here. Hell To Pay hits on all the notes of a classic Suicide Story - villains who aren't team players made to work together, some stay on mission, there will be betrayal, no one is safe - heads get blown up and some get killed in action, and things never go well. But unlike past Suicide Squad stories, Hell To Pay does what the others didn't and embraced the nature of how anyone could die and they killed off some well known and not so well known characters. Not just the rope guy jerk or quiet fire guy like last time. Enjoy retirement, Mr. Burnett. You've truly earned it. But you will be missed.
One of the surprises of Hell To Pay was how much it winked at the ongoing continuity of the movies. Literally right from the start with the cameo of Black Manta. We've wondered what happened to him for years after the shark grabbed him in "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis" - Did he die? Did he get away - and we got our answer. There's even a nice touch with shark having left its mark on Manta's helmet. Then a nice callback to "Batman: Bad Blood" when it's mentioned Tobias Whale was part of Black Mask's organization whom we met in that movie. Then in the Gotham scene - there's a nice mix of references. The lookouts, Nip and Tuck, and the nurses definitely fit the bill of Pyg's Dollotrons from the comics. And of course, Two-Face who gets an extending talking cameo. He first had a brief non-talking cameo in "Son of Batman" during the Arkham Asylum scene. Deadshot's prison cell scene has the blink and miss easter egg. When he looks at his returned letter, it's addressed to Star City - home city of Green Arrow in the comics. When is that guy showing up in these movies? Speedy already did. And given this movie line started with "Justice League: War" and a New 52 influence, makes sense there's still some of that. They confirm Copperhead is Sameer Park, an identity that came with the New 52 incarnation. The Ten-Eyed Man reference was a nice moment of levity and so meta. Blockbuster returns from Bad Blood as well. Branson is an actual city in Missouri but if it's full of casinos and strip clubs... anyway, Roulette Casino really stood out. Roulette. Copperhead has the sole dated reference (and insult), calling Bronze Tiger "Dolemite" only to be followed a few minutes later by a contemporary reference to ABC's "The Bachelorette" as Steel Maxum tells the squad about Dr. Fate. And like the comics, there have been many Fates in this continuity. Then listen real carefully, as Steel mentions he heard the next Fate is 'some chick' - if he's really Kent Nelson, perhaps he's alluding to Inza Cramer? Or even Linda Strauss? Hmm. Then Waller name drops the Justice League as she goes over Vandal Savage's file. Amusingly enough, Steel gets the appropriate "Magic Mike" nickname from Deadshot. Harley alludes to the Joker, who has had cameos at Arkham and on the Batcomputer in "Son of Batman" and "Batman vs. Robin." Like in the comics, Knockout confirms she's from Apokolips which figured into "Justice League War" followed by an amusing Wonder Woman name drop. I admit, this next one is still a bit of a mystery. That girl Deadshot mistook for his daughter Zoe? Rebecca Langstrom from "Son of Batman" but is that her or was it just a design re-use for a minor character? The latter makes sense because they've done that since War and even in this movie, Green Beetle's human form from "Young Justice: Invasion" can be seen in the bar where Steel Maxum meets Knockout. But if the former, it's intriguing. Did the Langstrom's get relocated to Utah under witness protection? Did Rebecca turn into a druggie? Or was Rebecca stealing ingredients for dear old dad and his Man-Bat formula? Another excellent move was linking both Deadshot and Bronze Tiger to the long defunct League of Assassins who always seems to get mentioned. And like the Pre-New 52 comics, Tiger's fiancee was named Miyoshi. Brilliant to include a Slade Wilson cameo as well. Second to last, Zoom and Banshee refers to the clan who banished the latter, McDougal in the comics. But the last and probably the biggest shocker was the revelation that this was the same Zoom as the one who appeared in "Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox". The very movie that set up this ongoing continuity as the 'new timeline' after the 'old timeline' was briefly supplanted with the Flashpoint world. Mind blown. Ooh, too soon?
Going into the cast, they were a treat across the board. Like his debut on the "Justice League Action" animated series, Christian Slater continues to make his mark on the role of Deadshot. I doubt this will be the last we'll hear of Slater. Billy Brown's take on Bronze Tiger is so powerful and magnetic. The discussion about Heaven and Hell in the Winnebago was especially amazing. Vanessa Williams does a surprisingly stunning performance as Amanda Waller, even rivaling CCH Pounder's take from Justice League Unlimited. Greg Grunberg... I don't know where to start. In the commentary, James Tucker really nails it when he talks about how he likes actors that don't hide where they're from. Grunberg is definitely a sleeper hit. Oddly, I think the one that got the least reaction from me was Tara Strong as Harley Quinn. I guess because I knew what to expect or she's not so much in the forefront of this story like she was in "Batman: Assault on Arkham." Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying she phoned it in but my brain was like 'yep, that's her' and that's that. It was a nice surprise to hear C Thomas Howell reprise the role of Zoom from Flashpoint Paradox. Whereas, new comers like Liam McIntyre, Kristin Bauer van Straten, and Gideon Emery totally step into their respective roles of Captain Boomerang, Killer Frost, and Copperhead like they've been doing it for years. McIntyre doesn't go over the top, Bauer van Straten (remember when she voiced Mera back in the day?) plays it cold, and Emery is enjoyably deadpan. Julie Nathanson and Jim Pirri really got a neat shot at flexing their voices. Nathanson was both Silver Banshee and Jewelee. Like McIntyre, it was a relief Nathanson didn't get too over the top. Pirri delivers the gravitas needed for villains like Vertigo and Vandal Savage. Same for Dave Fennoy as Tobias Whale. Dania Ramirez and Cissy Jones are able to sell Scandal and Knockout's relationship with the time they have and that continues into the tie-in digital comic that takes place after the movie. Then even though they had smaller appearances, James Urbaniak, Trevor Devall, and Dave Boat were really entertaining as Professor Pyg, Punch, and Two-Face. Also points to Natalie Lander. She got to do a All-American squeaky clean Stargirl on "Justice League Action" and had a small role as this red headed bad seed named Darma. Wes Gleason had a tall order going into this movie but he totally owned it and gave us yet another solid cast.
There's not a lot of downsides to the movie, in my opinion. Perhaps taking too much of a cue from grindhouse, the animation in the action sequences do seem less polished than past films. Some scenes seems to be sped up way too much, other times it seems inconsistent. The only other reason I can think of is this movie was animated by DR Movie and not by the answerstudio who usually does these in-continuity movies -- so maybe they weren't as familiar with the material, used different teams, and so on. But there were still a ton of bright spots like the James Bondian cold open, the 'talk' scenes, and each of the various locations having their own 'personalities' in the coloring, tone, and music. And I suppose that even though this is a R rated movie on a direct to video movie line geared towards the older crowds, some people will still decry the heightened level of violence, sexuality, and drug use. If it weren't for the tie-in comic, I likely would have griped about how some of the characters' fates were left a smidgen too open ended like Waller and her terminal condition or Scandal and Knockout.
The selection of special features for "Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay" is an improvement over last years in-continuity movie "Teen Titans: The Judas Contract" in terms of quantity with one more featurette and a commentary track. The two five minute plus character featurettes focus on Deadshot and Captain Boomerang and gives the initiated and uninitiated a look at the evolution of them from comics to their media incarnations. The 10-minute featurette talks about the differences between plot devices, red herrings and macguffins. I was happy to see Casablanca included in the discussion. Out the three featurettes, I didn't expect to be so entertained by this one, probably because I never thought about a talking heads feature about these abstract concepts, how to tell one from another, and how to use them the correct way. It could have easily gone longer. In the end, I'm glad they went with this one instead of a feature on the history of the Suicide Squad.
The commentary is -- if you've steadily read my reviews over the years, you know I absolutely enjoy these tracks -- and this one doesn't disappoint. James Tucker and Alan Burnett talk about the making of the script and various tidbits like what's going with Waller or a scrapped appearance by the Secret Six, including Bane. Tucker even drops a nugget about Bane being featured in an upcoming 'in-continuity' DC Universe Movie. They give Peter Girardi and Robert Kral props for working on the title and credits sequence and music without much restriction from them. Given the version of Dr. Fate that appears in this movie, it was good listen to hear what went into crafting Steel Maxum and who he really is. They also talk about turning the standard story plot on its head and going into a road trip with influences from 1970s exploitation and grindhouse movies. Burnett makes a definitive statement about Zoom but wasn't that a Zoom of a defunct timeline that died and the Zoom of the current timeline could still arrive from this timeline's future or even a different person like Zolomon could take up the mantle? Good commentaries also make you think I suppose.
The First Look at "Death of Superman," the next movie in the DC Universe line, is a combination of finished animation intercut with the crew and panels from the comics the movie is inspired by. Like the "Superman/Doomsday" movie that started off the line, the crew talks about how this movie also addresses Superman coming to terms with sharing his world with Lois Lane and making the ultimate sacrifice to stop Doomsday. There is an emphasis on Superman and his interactions with members of the Justice League, the Kents, Lois, and Bibbo. The First Look managed to avoid revealing too much, as Lex Luthor isn't even addressed. Recent news revealed he would be voiced by Rainn Wilson. When this first title was announced, I admit I felt some trepidation about another adaptation of Death of Superman and another big Doomsday fight but the fact that it's set in the ongoing continuity of direct to video movies has piqued my interest. If anything, that's the jumping off point from how it can stand out from things like "A Better World", "Hereafter", or "The Doomsday Sanction" to the "Superman/Doomsday" movie and even in live action with "Batman v Superman" in recent years.
For whatever reason, error or otherwise, the two bonus episodes from the DC Vault are Beware The Batman's "Instinct" and Young Justice's "Terrors" were kept out of press releases and the back cover but are definitely on the menu and come in high definition. It's a pleasant surprise to see the bonus episodes were from more contemporary animated series. Before the release, I assumed "Task Force X" from Justice League Unlimited would be included. "Instinct" features Professor Pyg as its main villain in contrast to Hell To Pay while "Terrors" features Amanda Waller and Belle Reve. I didn't see a Trailers section on the menu but before the menu, the ones that play are Deep Blue Sea 2 and the upcoming Batman Ninja animated movie. The Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray set also includes the movie on regular Blu-ray and digital copy. The Target special edition is, as always, a Steelbook and the Best Buy edition includes a collection of the first four chapters from the tie-in digital comic sequel series, Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay - The Ultimate Price. It currently releases weekly online for 12 issues total and the story takes place right after the movie. Written by Jeff Parker and art by a revolving set of artists, Matthew Dow Smith, Cat Staggs, and Stefano Raffaele, The Ultimate Price is a bonus for those who immediately want more of the Squad.
"Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay" is another top shelf addition to the ongoing DC Universe Original Movie line, expanding on the world of super heroes with its polar opposite in the criminal underbelly wrought with action, bullets, bodies, back stabbing, unexpected depth, dark humor and balanced road story. Hell To Pay truly earns its 'R' rating with a strong helping of death, violence, and language but that comes organically with the story and cast. Alan Burnett, James Tucker, Sam Liu, Phil Bourassa, Wes Gleason, Robert Kral, the voice cast, and everyone else involved have created the purest and most authentic Suicide Squad story to date. Complemented with a robust set of special features, Suicide Squad: Hell To Pay is a highly recommended purchase for those 17 years old and over.
Main Feature: 4.5 out of 5
Special Features: 4 out of 5
Average Rating: 4.1 out of 5